I am providence the life.., p.155

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 155


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  Derleth published these stories at every opportunity—in magazines, in his anthologies, and in his collections of Lovecraft miscellany. It is scarcely to be wondered, given how secretive Derleth was about the genesis of these works, that hostile critics would use them as ammunition with which to attack Lovecraft. Damon Knight’s “The Tedious Mr. Lovecraft” (Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1960) is one such example. (Knight, however, later went on to reprint The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in an anthology of fantasy tales.) Even today, when the truth about these “posthumous collaborations” has long been known, careless critics still cite them as work by Lovecraft, and careless publishers continue to reprint them—sometimes even omitting Derleth’s name altogether and leaving Lovecraft as the sole author!

  As early as the 1940s Derleth had become obsessed by the “Cthulhu Mythos,” writing story after story. Two volumes, The Mask of Cthulhu (1958) and The Trail of Cthulhu (1962), containing stories published in the 1940s and 1950s, feature some of his worst writing. Like many later pastichists, Derleth somehow seemed to fancy that the highest tribute he could pay to Lovecraft was to write half-baked ripoffs of Lovecraft’s own stories; hence, “The Whippoorwills in the Hills” (Weird Tales, September 1948) lifts passages almost directly from “The Rats in the Walls”; “Something in Wood” (Weird Tales, March 1948) is a rewrite of “The Call of Cthulhu”; “The Sandwin Compact” (Weird Tales, November 1940), “The House in the Valley” (Weird Tales, July 1953), and “The Watcher from the Sky” (Weird Tales, July 1945) are all near-plagiarisms of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” a story that seemed to fascinate Derleth. Nearly every one of these stories contains a catechism about the Elder Gods, elementals, the “expulsion” of the “evil” Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and Hastur (now deemed, by Derleth, the half-brother to Cthulhu, whatever that means).

  It may sound odd to say so, but Derleth really had no genuine feel for the weird. All his work in this domain is either highly conventional (tales of ghosts, haunted houses, etc.) or clumsy pastiche. Many of these Lovecraft-inspired tales are, in addition, poor not in their deviation from Lovecraft’s own conceptions (some later work that so deviates is highly meritorious, as we shall see), but in the basic craft of fiction-writing: they are written carelessly and hastily, with very poor, ham-fisted attempts to imitate Lovecraft’s style (Derleth frequently maintained that Lovecraft’s prose was easy to mimic!), clumsy development, laughable attempts at verisimilitude by long catalogues of esoteric terms, and flamboyant conclusions in which good triumphs in the nick of time over evil (in the final tale of the “novel” The Trail of Cthulhu Cthulhu ends up being nuked!). These tales really are subject to the very flaws that critics have falsely attributed to Lovecraft—verbosity, artificiality, excessive histrionics, and the like.

  Derleth tried as much as possible to sound like Lovecraft but failed pitiably. For some bizarre reason, he set nearly all his “Cthulhu Mythos” tales in New England, which he had never seen, and as a result was totally unconvincing in his atmosphere. He attempted to mimic Lovecraft’s archaistic prose when presenting old documents but produced comical errors. He was fond of pomposities such as the following: “I have come out of the sky to watch and prevent horror from being spawned again on this earth. I cannot fail; I must succeed.”[38] But it is too painful to make a catalogue of Derleth’s shortcomings; they are now all too apparent for all to see.

  What is of some interest is that several early scholars simply refused to pay attention to Derleth’s tendentious interpretation of the mythos and produced some fine analyses on their own. Three individuals stand out in particular. Fritz Leiber’s “A Literary Copernicus,” which appeared in Derleth’s second Lovecraft miscellany volume, Something about Cats and Other Pieces (1949), is a revision of several previous pieces that had appeared in the Acolyte and elsewhere; it may still stand as the best general article on Lovecraft. Leiber boldly declared, “. . . I believe it is a mistake to regard the beings of the Cthulhu mythos as sophisticated equivalents of the entities of Christian demonology, or to attempt to divide them into balancing Zoroastrian hierarchies of good and evil.”[39] Matthew H. Onderdonk wrote several articles in the 1940s, including some pioneering studies of Lovecraft’s philosophical thought that emphasised his mechanistic materialism and atheism and sought to harmonise the prodigal creation of “gods” in his fiction with this outlook. George T. Wetzel wrote a series of articles in the 1950s culminating in “The Cthulhu Mythos: A Study” (1955), in which he paid no attention to Derleth and merely studied the themes and motifs running through Lovecraft’s work. But they were lone voices, and almost all other commentators thoughtlessly accepted Derleth’s pronouncements as if they came from Lovecraft himself.

  One final issue, partly related to his promulgation of the “Cthulhu Mythos,” is Derleth’s control over the Lovecraft copyrights. This is an extraordinarily complicated situation and has yet to be resolved, but a few notes can be set down here. Lovecraft’s will of 1912 naturally made no provision for a literary estate, so any such estate by default ended up in the control of his sole surviving relative, Annie Gamwell, upon his death. Annie, as we have seen, formalised Lovecraft’s wish to have Barlow deemed his literary executor, but this conferred no control over the copyrights to Lovecraft’s work. When Annie herself died, her estate passed to Ethel Phillips Morrish and Edna Lewis.

  Derleth from the beginning claimed de facto ownership of Lovecraft’s work by virtue of publishing it in book form, but his control is almost certainly fictitious. He became angry at Corwin Stickney for publishing his small HPL pamphlet in 1937, even though this booklet of eight sonnets was published in an edition of 25 copies. He repeatedly badgered anthologists into paying him reprint fees for Lovecraft stories, and most did so simply to stay on good terms with him. Derleth indeed claimed that he had sunk $25,000 of his own money into Arkham House in its first decade,[40] and I am willing to believe it; but I also maintain that Arkham House would never have stayed afloat at all had it not been for the sales generated from Lovecraft’s work.

  What, then, were Derleth’s claims for ownership of Lovecraft’s copyrights? He initially tried to maintain that Annie Gamwell’s will had conferred such rights, but that will states clearly that Derleth and Wandrei are to receive merely the remaining proceeds from The Outsider and Others—not the literary rights to the material therein. Arkham House then claimed that something called “the Morrish-Lewis gift” (presumably a document signed by Ethel Phillips Morrish and Edna Lewis) grants Arkham House blanket permission to publish Lovecraft’s work; but this document, which was finally produced in court, does not in any sense transfer copyright to Arkham House.

  Finally, Derleth claimed to have purchased from Weird Tales the rights to forty-six Lovecraft stories published in that magazine. There is indeed a document to this effect, dated October 9, 1947; but the question is: what rights could have been transferred in this manner? Weird Tales could only have transferred rights to those stories where they controlled all rights (not merely first serial rights); but Lovecraft declared frequently that, although initially selling all rights to Weird Tales because he did not know any better, by April 1926 he began reserving his rights.[41] Now there is no documentary evidence of this (i.e., no contracts from Weird Tales in which only first serial rights are purchased), but there is considerable circumstantial evidence to support Lovecraft’s claim. Recall the Carl Swanson incident of 1932: Swanson had wanted to reprint stories from Weird Tales, and Farnsworth Wright had told Lovecraft not only that he (Wright) would not give Swanson second serial rights to any stories he owned, but that he “did not favour the second sale of those tales in which I hold later rights.”[42] Wright would not have made such a statement if he had held all rights.

  If April 1926 is the cut-off, there are thirteen stories for which Weird Tales owned all rights (not counting “Under the Pyramids,” which was presumably written on a work-for-hire contract). But of these thirteen, seven had already appeared in amateur (uncopyright
ed) journals, hence were in the public domain the moment they were published. Therefore, Derleth in truth purchased the rights to only six stories. And yet, he continued to act as if he controlled all of Lovecraft’s works, going so far as to state in 1949:

  As representatives of the estate of H. P. Lovecraft, it is the duty and obligation of Arkham House to prevent any such publication [i.e., unauthorised publication of Lovecraft’s works]; luckily, Supreme Court decisions have clearly supported every stand Arkham House has taken, and not even a letter by H. P. Lovecraft may be published without the consent of Arkham House.[43]

  Derleth later backed down from this outrageous claim (and I have no idea what “Supreme Court decisions” could have bolstered it); indeed, Derleth did nothing when many fans published works by Lovecraft in magazines. Moreover, when Sam Moskowitz wished to publish “The Whisperer in Darkness” in his anthology, Strange Signposts (1966), he refused to pay anything for it. Derleth threatened to sue; Moskowitz dared him to go ahead; Derleth did nothing.

  Derleth, in effect, relied upon bullying and upon his self-appointed role as Lovecraft’s publisher and disciple. He even went so far as to claim that the “Cthulhu Mythos” was an Arkham House property, and in this way badgered the pulp writer C. Hall Thompson from developing his own offshoot of the mythos, set in New Jersey. As late as 1963 Derleth was claiming: “I should point out that the Mythos and its pantheon of Gods etc. are under copyright and may not be used in fiction without the express permission of Arkham House.”[44] Admittedly, this statement was made in a personal letter written to some young fan who was attempting to write “Cthulhu Mythos” tales; but Derleth did declare in print four years later: “the title ‘Necronomicon’ is a literary property and may not be used without permission.”[45]

  This whole issue is, of course, now moot, for it is widely acknowledged that Lovecraft’s entire work went into the public domain at the end of the seventieth year following his death, i.e. January 1, 2008.

  One interesting upshot of all this involves Lovecraft’s ex-wife. Sonia had left for California in 1933, and in 1936 she married Dr Nathaniel Davis. Incredibly, she did not hear of Lovecraft’s death until 1945, when Wheeler Dryden informed her of it. This seemed to rekindle her interest in her ex-husband, for she resumed contact with some Lovecraft associates, especially Samuel Loveman. She began preparing a memoir of Lovecraft and even contemplated publishing some unspecified materials by Lovecraft which she possessed (not her letters, since she had burned these long before). Derleth, hearing of the venture, shot back a stern letter:

  . . . I hope you are not going ahead regardless of our stipulations to arrange for publication of anything containing writings of any kind, letters or otherwise, of H. P. Lovecraft, thus making it necessary for us to enjoin publication and sale, and to bring suit, which we will certainly do if any manuscript containing works of Lovecraft does not pass through our office for the executor’s permission.[46]

  Sonia was indeed deterred by this from publishing whatever Lovecraft materials she had, but she did go ahead and write her memoir, which appeared in the Providence Sunday Journal for August 22, 1948 as “Howard Phillips Lovecraft as His Wife Remembers Him.” It was heavily edited by Winfield Townley Scott. As further edited by Derleth, it appeared in Something about Cats and Other Pieces (1949). Her full, unedited version did not see print until 1985.

  Robert Hayward Barlow died by his own hand on January 2, 1951. After essentially being pushed out of his literary executorship by Derleth and Wandrei, Barlow had begun to pursue other interests. Moving to California and taking courses at Berkeley, he emigrated to Mexico in 1942 and became a professor of anthropology at the University of Mexico. He remains a revered and distinguished figure there for the landmark work he did in the study of the native Indian languages of the region. He had also evolved into a very fine poet. But word leaked out about his homosexuality, and to forestall exposure he committed suicide. He was thirty-two years old. It was a tragic waste, for—although not in the field of weird fiction—he had fully justified Lovecraft’s predictions of his precocious genius, and would have accomplished far more had he lived.

  The 1950s were a somewhat quiescent decade for Lovecraft. Much of his work fell out of print in the United States except for random appearances in anthologies. One surprising development occurred, however: the publication of Lovecraft’s work in Europe. The British publisher Victor Gollancz, passing through New York, contacted Derleth and asked about the possibility of issuing Lovecraft in England. Gollancz published two volumes in 1951, The Haunter of the Dark and Other Tales of Horror and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Both received relatively favourable reviews, suggesting that British critics were a little less predisposed to dislike the weird on principle than American critics of the day were. Punch declared: “Lovecraft was undoubtedly a minor master of cosmic horror.”[47] An unsigned review of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in the Times Literary Supplement has now been assigned to the distinguished novelist Anthony Powell. While not entirely favourable, Powell does conclude: “There are, however, undeniably some eerie moments among the corpses.”[48] The mystery writers Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) and Edmund Crispin praised Lovecraft.[49] Both Gollancz volumes did remarkably well: The Haunter of the Dark went through five hardcover printings through 1977 and five paperback printings with Panther Books; The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was reprinted by Panther in 1963 and went through four printings through 1973. The Avon Lurking Fear was reprinted in paperback by World Distributors in 1959, attracting a new generation of British weird enthusiasts.

  Still more remarkable than British interest in Lovecraft is the foreign response. In 1954 two books of Lovecraft’s stories were published in France; editions in Germany, Italy, Spain, and South America followed rapidly. The leader of the French movement was Jacques Bergier, who may or may not have corresponded with Lovecraft. These early volumes attracted the attention of Jean Cocteau, who contributed to a symposium in the Observer and remarked of the first French volume, La Couleur tombée du ciel, “Mr. Lovecraft, who is American, invents a terrifying world of space-time; his somewhat loose style has gained by translation into French.”[50] This remark echoes that of Lovecraft’s early French translator Jacques Papy, who actually found Lovecraft’s style so offensive that he wilfully omitted many words and phrases so as to produce a more “elegant” and simplified French version. It is perhaps true that Lovecraft’s dense style cannot be well accommodated in French, but the majority of French readers who have read only Papy’s translations (which continue to be reprinted to the present day) cannot be said to have read Lovecraft. Criticism abroad also followed these early volumes, and was on the whole much more astute than American or English criticism.

  The fan movement continued to be active in the 1950s. Here George T. Wetzel was the spearhead. As early as 1946 he had begun compilation of a new bibliography of Lovecraft: Francis T. Laney and William H. Evans (receiving assistance from Barlow and other individuals) had assembled one in 1943, but it was very preliminary. Wetzel spent years combing through amateur journals, while Robert E. Briney concentrated on professional appearances. The result—the seventh and last volume of Wetzel’s Lovecraft Collectors Library (1955)—is a landmark, and the foundation for all subsequent bibliographic work on Lovecraft. The first five volumes of the Lovecraft Collectors Library contained obscure stories, poems, and essays by Lovecraft; the sixth, essays about him, including memoirs reprinted from Edward H. Cole’s special Olympian issue. These volumes were all humbly produced on mimeograph, but they began that resurrection of Lovecraft’s lesser work which continues in the small press today.

  On a more academic front, the Swiss scholar Peter Penzoldt devoted some remarkably astute pages to Lovecraft in The Supernatural in Fiction (1952), which could be called the first significant treatise in the field since “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and which itself draws upon Lovecraft’s monograph for many of its theoretical presuppositions. Lovecraft also entered
a textbook for the first time (if we discount “Sleepy Hollow To-day”) when “The Music of Erich Zann” was included in James B. Hall and Joseph Langland’s The Short Story (1956), complete with study questions at the end.

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